It was announced just yesterday that the live-action remake of the Disney classic Mulan would be hitting Disney+ on Sept. 4 for a premium price of $30. There is no word yet on whether or not this rental price comes with a set amount of time during which viewers can stream the film (such as the typical 48-hr window for other PVOD releases like Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island or Jon Stewart’s political comedy Irresistible), but we do know that Disney is planning to release the film in theaters internationally in all open markets, much like Warner Bros. with Tenet before that film comes to U.S. theaters. Disney has also since come out to confirm that other releases the company had planned for this year, namely Marvel’s Black Widow, will not be following the same pattern, and that Mulan is a one-off in this regard.
What does remain is the question of what this means for movie theaters at large. Is the theatrical distribution model so heavily relied upon by tentpole features and blockbuster-esque fare (mostly Disney releases, as of late) now a thing of the past, doomed to one day cause movie theaters to cease existing entirely, or is this whole situation being overblown in the immediate aftermath of such a large news drop? There are a variety of perspectives to consider, none providing any clear answer to this or any other questions regarding the future of movie theaters, but there are five distinct factors at play in the deciding of that future that might be helpful to explore, and could help shine a light on the future of movies.
1. AMC and Universal Studios’ Distribution Deal is a Much Larger Red Flag
For those of you who are unaware of the situation, the battle between Universal Studios and AMC theaters began when Universal decided to release Trolls World Tour on PVOD for $20 and in theaters simultaneously back in April. AMC claimed that Universal had both disrespected and broken the theatrical distribution contract most studios set up with theaters, which states that a movie must play in theaters for a minimum of 90 days before being made available for home viewing. AMC, in a major show of force, then told Universal that the theater chain would refuse to show any movies developed or distributed by Universal Pictures unless the studio took a different approach. There have been many developments since then, but the biggest has been that AMC has since come out and told Universal Studios that they will allow them to put their films on home release sooner (VOD first, then physical) as long as that film plays in theaters for a minimum of 17 days. This deal, more than anything else, is the biggest indicator towards the eventual downfall of movie theaters. With this deal signed, sealed, and delivered, families and curious individuals now have to wait just over two weeks to see virtually any new release distributed by Universal Pictures, which actively discourages them from seeking it out in theaters during that initial theatrical window, and casts a long shadow over repeat viewings that major studios rely on to bolster their bottom line. The less time one has to wait for a film to get out of theaters, the more they are encouraged to just wait it out and not go, and this particularly applies to large families, whose ticket sales make up a large portion of opening and second weekend grosses. Mulan going to Disney+ is a big deal, but it will not destroy the theatrical model without precedent, and this AMC/Universal deal marks the largest portion of that precedent thus far.
2. Mid-Budget and Small-Budget Releases are already on PVOD, and Filmmakers Trust Streamers
This is the least important of these four perspectives in context, but nonetheless is something to consider when discussing whether Mulan moving to Disney+ for $30 means the end of theatrical distribution as we know it. While this is certainly a valid concern, Mulan would not be responsible for the downfall of movie theaters any more than The King of Staten Island or Irresistible would be responsible for their ultimate (albeit slower) demise. When COVID-19 forced theaters to shut down across the U.S., mid-budget and small-budget fair such as these, as well as filmmaker and star-driven projects were already no longer the thing driving audiences to movie theaters, and in the age of the MCU, that meant that films like Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, which would have been a surefire hit ten-to-twelve years ago, went to Netflix because no traditional studios did not believe that it could make the money necessary to justify a major theatrical rollout. Additionally, filmmakers such as Alfonso Cuarón, Angelina Jolie, Steven Soderbergh, Ava DuVernay, Aaron Sorkin, Spike Lee, and even David Fincher have gone on to make films or other projects with and for Netflix in light of their unique position of allowing creators and artists almost totally free reign on their own material. Lee, in perhaps the most relevant case, won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 2019 for his film BlacKkKlansman, and still struggled to get his Vietnam war drama Da 5 Bloods made, despite his Hollywood standing as one of the great filmmakers of his generation. With Netflix’ streaming model becoming increasingly awards-and-filmmaker friendly, and mid-budget fare like The King of Staten Island going to PVOD instead of theaters to recoup what it’s already lost, it seems more likely that the future of theatrical distribution will come down not to whether or not Disney releases one of its tentpoles on its own streaming service, but whether traditionally-minded studios will continue to pass on filmmaker-driven projects such as The Irishman or Da 5 Bloods on the pretense that audiences will not seek them out, and thus they are not worth the investment.
3. Disney Confirms “Black Widow” Not Following Suit
This is the second most important point of reference for determining whether or not Disney moving Mulan to Disney+ will mean the end of the theatrical distribution model. Disney’s live-action remakes of their classic films have largely been hits, financially speaking, but have faired less favorably on the critical side for the most part. While The Jungle Book was praised almost universally, Dumbo was critically panned, and The Lion King received mixed reactions among critics and audiences (though all seemed to agree the visual effects were astounding). However, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (developed by Marvel Studios, which is owned by Disney) has been chugging along with strong box office and great word-of-mouth for almost its entire run. Yes, there are detractors, as there are with any other movies, but for the most part, the MCU has seen success unlike any other long-term movie project, and has the receipts to show for it. This is Disney’s most valuable asset (in terms of movies) at this point in this point in the studio’s history. The next major movie in the MCU, Black Widow, is currently slated for theatrical release in November, after having been pushed back as a result of theaters staying closed. While we cannot predict where the U.S. will be in terms of COVID-19 by November, however, Disney has come out and said that they do not plan to release Black Widow on streaming or PVOD at all before it would typically be appropriate to do so, and that Mulan is a one-off experiment in that regard. The very notion that Disney refuses to risk their most valuable cinematic asset on streaming or PVOD speaks to the idea that there are other factors at work with this decision besides just accessibility or audience optics, which leads us to the fourth point.
4. Disney Relies on Theatrical Distribution for Profit
A $30 price point for any rental seems steep, especially from a streaming service such as Disney+, which launched with a lower monthly rate than almost any other streaming service at the time. However, for a tentpole release such as Mulan, this is actually a very fair price to ask. Studios rely on theatrical distribution to bolster their bottom line. The money you spend at the ticket counter (mostly) goes to the studios who produced the film, and with the average ticket price being around $10 for a theatrical showing, releasing the film on Disney+ actually loses Disney money. Consider a family of four. Each of their tickets would cost around $10 on average, meaning the $30 price point for a Disney+ rental is $10 cheaper than it would have been for them to see the movie in theaters; this not only saves them money, but significantly eats into whatever profits the studio would have had to gain from the extra $10 from the fourth family member. With the knowledge that Mulan is a more family-oriented action film, from a family-driven studio, a $30 price point actually sound fairly reasonable, especially if the studio is going to lose out on those $10, $20, $30 payouts from any family with more than three people. Many major tentpole releases also rely on repeat viewings to up their profits as well, but in theaters, each of those repeat viewings costs the price of another ticket. As mentioned, there is no word yet on whether Disney+ will following the 48-hr rental model used by other services like Vudu and Prime Video, but if things are indeed heading that direction, that’s even more money that would have been spent for second or third viewings in theaters that no longer needs to be spent for people to watch the movie again, which can especially be an advantage for those families with children who want to watch something over and over.
5. COVID-19 Makes Everything Unpredictable
The final, and most critical, point of this piece is that COVID-19 has its own plans, and until the leadership of the U.S. steps up and takes it more seriously, we are all at the mercy of those plans. Movie theaters, especially those from major chains, have never once shut down across the whole country in the wake of any national disaster. They did not shut down in 1918, they were not shut down during the Great Depression, they were not shuttered during WWII, and they didn’t even close on 9/11 (at least, not nationwide). This point may seem obvious in hindsight, but when COVID-19 hit U.S. shores, ultimately forcing movie theaters to shut down until things could be better handled, no industry was really prepared to face circumstances like this, least of all the arts. Streaming services and drive-ins started doing superb numbers, but traditional studios and mainstream theaters all lost out on huge opportunities for good business. Paramount had to sell The Lovebirds to Netflix, Universal released The Invisible Man to PVOD a few weeks after it had its theatrical debut, and Disney accelerated its home release for Onward (a PIXAR movie) mere days after it opened in theaters, with it appearing on Disney+ in April, less than a month later. Most importantly, audiences were robbed by this pandemic of their chance to see certain movies in theaters from studios that have since shuttered their theatrical rollouts entirely, favoring a streaming or PVOD platform so money isn’t lost on the project. And until the U.S. gets this pandemic enough under control so theaters can reopen safely, that is going to continue to happen. Major tentpoles like Black Widow and Tenet will play in theaters where they can, but not in the U.S. until it’s safe to do so, and the less certain IPs, even from major studios like Disney, will have to adapt to a new release and distribution environment. Before this pandemic hit, Disney had Mulan, Black Widow, and Eternals on the docket to release this year, not to mention their smaller projects like PIXAR’s Soul, which has also since been moved to November. Three out of four of those films are still planning to release in theaters, and people will be looking for some way to get out of the home and back out into some semblance of normal life any way they can when things are safe enough to justify it, which means many will flock to movie theaters just to experience what those are like once again.
Mulan going to Disney+ does not spell the end of the theatrical distribution model any more than other factors at play like mid-budget PVOD releases and the AMC/Universal deal do, and the price point of $30 is a more than fair ask for a major tentpole release from a major studio, especially one meant for families. There are a lot of things up in the air right now with regards to what happens to theaters as a result of this move, but it is not an unprecedented nor unfair move for Disney to make. If anything, this is more the inevitable result of a pattern of momentum towards this model of distribution that has been in the works for years, which seems more dramatic now that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated its pace. Movies and their studios may be adjusting to unusual circumstances, which will cause some hurt both for them and for audiences in light of some shuttered theatrical release plans, but movie theaters aren’t going anywhere, at least for now.
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.